The pair transform themselves physically, adding weight and, in Gosling's case, losing hair. But the actors also change internally, beautifully capturing the resentful silences, the meaningful glares, and all that lies unspoken between two people. At one point, Cindy finds herself only able to repeatedly say, "I'm done" over and over. But in the hands of Williams, those two words speak pages.
It's not always an easy film to watch—which may explain why the MPAA has slapped it with an NC-17 rating that The Weinstein Co. is still in the process of appealing. Williams recalls attending one screening where "it was just me and the projectionist, and I wanted to ask him to hold me afterwards." But it would be a mistake to limit an audience's access to "Blue Valentine," as many theaters still refuse to show NC-17 movies. It's a film that should be viewed by anyone even thinking of falling in love.
A Long Courtship
Williams was only 21 when she was first sent the script by Cianfrance; she would shoot "Blue Valentine" when she was 27. About two years after Williams, Gosling signed on. Though the actors appeared in 2003's "The United States of Leland," they didn't share scenes and would run into each other casually over the years while Cianfrance was trying to finance the movie. "We had a lot of time to prepare," Gosling notes. Suggest that they could have shot the younger scenes right away and waited six years to shoot the scenes in which the characters are older, and Gosling reveals that it was a consideration at one point. "I had just finished 'Half Nelson' when I met Derek," Gosling recalls. "And I told him, 'I'd love to do the film, but I can't play the father. I wouldn't believe myself as that older part.' And he said, 'Well, let's film the young part now and circle back in four or five years.' I loved it, but we couldn't get it financed, and it fell apart again."
Both actors say the film was eventually made at the right time. "When I first read it, I lived off it, it gave me nourishment for a long time because I had never seen anything like it," Williams notes. "I think there's a very valid part of me at 21 that was ready to make this movie; it just would've been a very different film. In the time that lapsed, Derek had two children, I had a child, and so our understanding of that situation deepened." There were times when the film was ready to shoot but one of the actors wasn't available. Williams says she can recall a time when she was "sobbing on the phone" to Cianfrance, trying to recommend other actors for her role. Echoes Gosling, "Plenty of times, our schedules and lives intervened and we weren't able to proceed with the start date we'd set. And Derek never tried to recast. He always understood that life came first, and when the film was supposed to be made, it would be made." In the end, Gosling believes it was for the best. "So much of this film felt like we were supposed to make it exactly when we did. All the trials and tribulations on the road to making it made its way into the fabric of the film."
Together at Last
Cianfrance was finally able to pull together a budget under $10 million and shoot the film in 2009. "Derek spent his money in interesting ways," Gosling reveals. "He was hell-bent on having a month off between the younger and older scenes. To afford that, he gave up some luxuries—like a lighting truck." As a result, all the light in the film is natural and practical. "There isn't one light in that movie," Gosling adds.
The actors say they truly got to know each other onscreen. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie occurs when the two first meet and spend a day wandering the city, culminating with Dean playing the ukulele while Cindy dances. The scene came from a full day's improvisation early in the shoot. "Derek said, 'I'm going to follow you around from sunup to sundown and watch you get to know each other,'" Gosling reveals. "None of it was scripted, it all happened organically."
During the month off, Cianfrance had the couple live together in their onscreen house as if they were Dean and Cindy. "We had Christmas, wrapped presents, were given a budget to grocery shop," explains Gosling. With their onscreen daughter, Faith Wladyka, they even made home movies and had a family portrait taken at a local Sears. But most important, they learned to argue. "Derek wanted me to learn how to fight," Williams says with a laugh. "We had built up this really beautiful friendship at the beginning, and it was our job to tear it down. And we were having a hard time doing that because we were having so much fun. At one point I said, 'Can't we just make a movie and call it "Valentine"? Do we really have to get into the messy stuff?" Gosling says they fought over everything couples generally do: who will do the housework, why cigarettes aren't in the family budget. "We had days when we were just supposed to fight all day, then take our daughter to the park and pretend like everything was okay," he notes.
Williams says the first part of the shoot was "ecstatic," adding, "I didn't know moviemaking could be like that." For the second part of filming, she uses different adjectives. "It was painful. Grueling. Arduous," she admits. Gosling says the last part of filming took its toll on him emotionally, but he believes it was harder on his co-star. "Michelle had to go home and be a mom," he notes. "She couldn't stay in it, and it's hard to let go and pick up." But Gosling says he was happy to leave Dean behind. Years ago, the actor once went to a doctor complaining of stomach pain and was given a prescription reading, "Try a light comedy." Following "Blue Valentine," he finally took his doctor's advice and signed on to his first comedy, opposite Steve Carell. "It was just what I needed," he says.
One of the reasons "Blue Valentine" is so effective is that it presents two decent people who can't make a once-good relationship work. And the film does a good job of presenting both sides fairly—although some people have had strong feelings about which character was more to blame for the failure of the marriage. "When we were making the movie, it felt like a boxing match. Like, who is going to win this round?" says Williams. "And the audience is our jury; it's up for people to decide how they feel about my character. And I'm willing to play a character rich in faults." Still, she admits to squirming uncomfortably at the first screening at this year's Sundance Film Festival when she realized many people in the audience were not on her character's side. "I wanted to bury my head in the snow," she admits with a laugh. "But the good news is, people are taking it on and making it personal and taking a stance on it. But it is troubling to be on the receiving end of that animosity." Gosling says he has had his own experiences in which the audiences seemed to be against Dean. "Derek tried very hard to make it even, not slanted one way or the other," the actor says. "I think however you feel about it says more about you than it does the characters."
To prepare for his role, Ryan Gosling visited a couple who had been together for five years to talk about marriage:
"We all got a little drunk and loose-tongued, and I said, 'What are your main problems?' She went off on an angry tirade about how when he washes the dishes, he never squeezes out the sponge. So it's filled with cold, dirty water. And she really believed that, subconsciously on some level, he was doing it to spite her. Then he was saying, why would he go through the process of doing the dishes to make her happy, only to spoil it all in the end by not squeezing out the sponge? These were the things they were fighting about. They're no longer together."